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Remembering Slavery--The Pros and Cons of Oral History

Created by:
Sharon Musher
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Slavery in the 19th Century

Grade Level:
9 to 12


In this exercise, students will use multiple accounts of an interview with a freed slave collected by a federally employed writer during the Great Depression to examine the strengths and weaknesses of oral history. Oral histories provide an invaluable window into the past and a highly engaging teaching resource because they make vivid the life choices and expectations of people long ago. They translate historical processes into the personal lived experiences of individuals explaining what various events and trends meant to someone living at the time. They show how people created their own worlds and controlled their own destinies even as they struggled with the complications and challenges of their generation. Because oral histories rely on real people in the real world, students can often connect with them in ways that they will not necessarily identify with other documents.

Yet oral histories are also tricky sources. People forget what happened, when, and why it happened. Even if they remember, some don't want to tell the truth. Interviewees can be intimidated by their interviewers or want to impress them. Interviewers can direct the exchange by only asking certain questions or asking leading questions. They can mis-record what those they interview say or alter it to make it sound more eloquent, realistic etc.

Many of these complications apply to interviews with ex-slaves. How should students and scholars use the Slave Narrative Collection given that it both illustrates the minds and beliefs of ex-slaves while also reflecting the biases of encounters in the Jim Crow South between white southerners and elderly blacks?

Historical Context

Between 1937 and 1939, relief workers hired by the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) in seventeen states interviewed more than two thousand ex-slaves, approximately 2 percent of the total ex-slave population. These interviews are particularly powerful sources because they record the thoughts and feelings of non-elite and even illiterate freed slaves. Government employees collected a number of these interviews in a rare book housed in the Library of Congress, and the Slave Narrative Collection, which emerged out of this effort, has played an important role in shaping what folklorists, sociologists, and historians have written about slave culture and the master-slave relationship.

The Slave Narrative Collection, however, is a difficult set of sources to navigate. Most relief workers hired by the Writers' Project were unemployed, white, white-collar journalists, teachers, librarians, and clerks. Some were even the children of former masters of the ex-slaves they interviewed. To complicate matters, many ex-slaves had been children at the time of Emancipation and octogenarians when they were interviewed. Most of them had been hard hit by the Depression and many of them believed that the Federal Writers who were asking them questions were relief agents who might be able to provide them with government funds. In addition, few of the interviews were tape recorded, so they are based on interviewers' efforts to recreate the encounters based on their notes.

The interviews included in the Slave Narrative Collection represent only a fraction of the total number of ex-slave interviews recorded by the Writers Project. In the 1970s, historian George Rawick working with civil rights and political activists Ken Lawrence and Jan Hillegas rescued hundreds of thousands of additional interviews that state editors from the Writers' Project had failed to submit to the national office in Washington, D.C. Close textual analysis reveals differences between the interviews that the primarily white and female state editors submitted to Washington, D.C. and those they left in their own state archives despite repeated requests for the material from the national office.

This exercise illustrates both the opportunities and the shortcomings of oral history through a close reading of three interviews between Federal Writer Esther de Sola and ex-slave Charlie Moses from Brookhaven, Mississippi. De Sola interviewed Moses using an interview script created by the folklorist John Lomax. At a later date, she interviewed Moses a second time using an interview script developed by the poet and Director of Negro Affairs Sterling Brown. Although the Washington, DC-based administrators of the Writers' Project warned government employees not to alter the interviews and to submit them directly to the national office, local officials often made their own editorial decisions; some withheld interviews, and others altered their language. Mississippi state editors Pauline Loveless and Clara E. Stokes did both. They only submitted twenty-six interviews to the national office, although they gathered some twenty-four-hundred pages of freed slaves' testimonies. They also radically rewrote twenty-one out of twenty-six submitted interviews, including de Sola's interview with Moses. Studying how Loveless and Stokes rewrote Moses's interview will reveal the difficulties surrounding the Slave Narrative Collection and initiate a discussion regarding the pros and cons of using oral history to understand the past,


Slavery, Reconstruction, New Deal, oral history

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this lesson, students will understand:

1. How to analyze and interpret oral histories.

2. How to compare and contrast historical accounts of the same event.

3. How biases shape primary sources.

4. The pros and cons of using biased source material to research the past.


STANDARD 6.1.12.A.2. Formulate questions and hypotheses from multiple perspectives, using multiple sources. (Social Studies)

STANDARD 6.1.12.A.4. Examine source data within the historical, social, political, geographic, or economic context in which it was created, testing credibility and evaluating bias.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Moses/de Sola interview #1

Moses/de Sola interview #2

Moses/de Sola interview #3

All three interviews appear as attachments at the end of this lesson plan.

Details of Activity


In preparation for this in-class activity, students should read the three interviews with Charlie Moses. They should be asked to imagine the interactions between Moses and Esther de Sola and mark in the text where de Sola might have asked Moses questions and guess what she might have asked him. Tell students that they will be re-enacting all three of these interviews in class.

PART I (10 min.)

Give a brief history of the Slave Narrative Collection and ask students, based on this story, what might be some of the pros and cons of using it to study slavery. Make a chart of their answers on the board under the categories pros and cons.

Questions asked to stimulate discussion might include:

1. How much time had passed between slavery and the collection of these interviews?

2. How might this time lag affect their stories?

3. How old are the subjects when interviewed?

4. Does age affect memories?

5. Who interviewed the people and documented their stories?

6. Is it significant that interviewers were white, while the subjects were black? If so, why?

7. Does it matter that few of the interviews were tape recorded and most of the interview transcripts are really filled-in accounts from the notes Federal Writers took during interviews?

PART 2 (10 min.)

Tell students that they will be re-enacting three interviews between a white southern woman named Esther de Sola and an 84-year old freed slave named Charlie Moses conducted by the Federal Writers' Project during the 1930s. Their job will be to compare and contrast the interviews and consider how reliable they are as sources.

Divide the class into thirds and assign each group one of the three Moses interviews. Divide each group further into groups of 5 students. Have each group of 5 decide how they would act out the interview. Two people in each group should play Moses and de Sola. The group will need to imagine the questions that de Sola asked of Moses. They will also need to portray the subjective nature of the interaction between interviewer and interviewee (i.e. what did they say to one another that wasn't recorded, what was the nature of their body language, etc.). The other students should act out the other characters Moses mentioned during the interviews.

PART III (11 to 12 min. for each performance and discussion, or 35 minutes total)

Have one group from each third perform each of the interviews. The other groups should comment on how their interpretations of the interview compared.

After the first performance, ask the other students in group one how their interpretations of this interview (especially the questions they imagined de Sola asking) compared to the performance they just saw. Ask them why the interview questions were not included in the transcript of the interview. How does their exclusion affect the reliability of the interview?

After the second performance, compare this interview (and its performed interpretation) with the first group's interview (and interpretation). Write on the board the similarities and differences between the two. How did the students' way of performing the interview compare to the last group's performance? In terms of the interview themselves, did de Sola ask different questions? Did Moses answer differently? Why do you think de Sola returned?

After you've given students some time to speculate about how the interviews compare to one another, explain that de Sola was given a second interview script, this one written by the African-American poet and professor of literature at Howard University Sterling Brown, who was serving as the director of the Writers' Project's Negro Affairs Committee. Unlike the folklorist John Lomax, who directed the interviews with ex-slaves' project and was primarily interested in the slaves' clothing, folksongs, and folktales, Brown was more interested in their experiences of freedom after Emancipation, their encounters with violence both as slaves and afterwards, and their memories of Reconstruction. Federal Writers were instructed by the national office that they should incorporate Brown's questions into the interviews they conducted. Ask students how this knowledge changes their perception of the first two interviews.

Before the third group presents, explain the circumstances surrounding this last interview. It never happened. Instead Mississippi state editors Pauline Loveless and Clara E. Stokes rewrote the first two interviews into this third interview. It was one of twenty-six interviews they sent to the national office of the Writers' Project in Washington, DC. Despite repeated requests from DC, Mississippi's State Editors did not send in most of the material they gathered. This included some twenty-four hundred pages of freed slaves' testimonies.

Questions for discussion after the third presentation:

1. How did this third performance compare to the earlier two?

2. How did Loveless and Stokes change the two interviews to create this one?

3. How did they present Moses's story differently?

4. How did they reorder his account?

5. Were their changes cosmetic, or did they alter the meaning of Moses's words?

6. Why do you think they rewrote the first two interviews?

7. How do their revisions affect the reliability of this interview (and the Slave Narrative Collection more broadly) in capturing the thoughts and feelings of freed slaves?

PART IV (5 min.)

Ask the class if this exercise has changed their understanding of slavery and/or of the reliability of oral history.

Practice and Reinforcement

In groups of three, formulate a question regarding slavery or Reconstruction that you wish to learn more about (examples include the experiences of children during slavery, freed slaves' memories of learning they were free, who and how slaves resisted slavery, etc.). Using the following two websites from the Library of Congress's American Memory Project, select at least five interviews that address the given question and see how each answers it. Analyze the biases of each source. Which is most reliable? How might you further verify your findings? Students might write up their findings and/or present them to the class.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html

Voices from the Days of Slavery, http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/collections/voices/

You might wish to use the Library of Congress's Using Oral History Learning Page as model. It can be found at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/learn/lessons/oralhist/ohhome.html.


Jerrold Hirsch, Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers' Project (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC, 2003).

Sharon Ann Musher. Contesting the Way the Almighty Wants it: Crafting Memories of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection, American Quarterly, 53, no. 1 (2001).

Charlie Moses Slave Narrative from Mississippi, no date (4 pp.): from the FWP of the WPA Slave Narrative Collection, printed in George P. Rawick, Jan Hillegas, and Ken Lawrence, eds., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Supplement Series. Vol. 1: Alabama Narratives (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977):, Supplement Series I: Volume 9, part 4, Mississippi Narratives, pp. 1597-1603.

Charlie Moses Slave Narrative from Mississippi, no date (rewritten), (6 pp.): from Born in Slavery, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ snhtml/snhome.html (accessed 1/26/09)],.) or in Rawick, ed., The American Slave, Series I, Vol. 7, pp. 113-118.

Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery: African American Talk about Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: The New Press, 1998). Note Remembering Slavery includes two audiotapes of actors performing interviews with freed slaves collected in the 1930s as part of the Slave Narrative Collection.

Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives, prod. by Jacqueline Glover and dir. by Ed Bell, 75 min. HBO Documentary Films, 2003, DVD.

Other helpful websites include:

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, American Memory Project of the Library of Congress, http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html: The website contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. This online collection is a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress and includes more than 200 photographs from the Prints and Photographs Division that are now made available to the public for the first time. Born in Slavery was made possible by a major gift from the Citigroup Foundation.

Voices from the Days of Slavery, American Memory Project of the Library of Congress, http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/collections/voices/: The almost seven hours of recorded interviews presented here took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. All known recordings of former slaves in the American Folklife Center are included in this presentation. Some are being made publicly available for the first time and several others already available now include complete transcriptions.

Using Oral History, The Library of Congress Learning Page, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/learn/lessons/oralhist/ohhome.html#teacher: This website draws on primary sources from the American Memory Collection, American Life Histories, 1936-1940. Students study various social history topics through interviews with diverse working and middle-class Americans gathered by relief workers during the Great Depression. Based on their findings and further research through the on-line collection, students then develop their own research questions. Finally students plan and conduct oral history interviews within their local communities to investigate further their area of interest. This website could be used to adapt this lesson for younger learners.

Supplementary Materials



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